The South Oak Grove Baptist Church has been a fixture in southwest Washington County since 1880. It doubled as a school for nearly 60 years, until a school was built in nearby Fruitdale.
Today it is a staging site for volunteers working to provide meals for local students prevented from attending school by the virus pandemic. The fellowship hall is filled with can goods, bags of chips and goodies and drinks. Five local churches, along with local citizens, have provided $2,000 for food. The local route man for a bread company donated loaves of bread. The Bay Area Food Bank helped.
The effort is coordinated by Marty Coaker, who has driven a school bus for Fruitdale school for 32 years. Food is provided for 109 students, all but eight of whom have meals delivered to their homes. Ten volunteers, including one great-grandmother, make deliveries. The deliveries are necessary because the area is so sparsely populated and both distance and lack of transportation hamper students and their families from getting to the church.
It is an amazing effort, one being repeated today in hundreds of communities around the state. For instance, the same day I visited South Oak Grove I also stopped by the McIntosh Community Center on the other side of the county. Volunteer Wesley Barnes, assisted by McIntosh High School principal Jamelle Sauls, ran this site distributing more than 100 “grab and go” lunches.
While thousands of volunteers and educators in Alabama are scrambling to meet the challenges of this momment, the Washington County school system is unique since it is the only rural system in the state also threatened financially by the prospect of a charter school opening there and cutting $2 million in funding from the existing system.
This charade has now gone on for nearly two years. The state charter commission approved the Woodland Prep charter application on May 14, 2018. The application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be denied. They also recommended the same for LEAD Academy in Montgomery.
But Soner Tarim of Houston, who had management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD, convinced the charter commission that NACSA did not know what they were doing, so both schools were approved.
LEAD Academy opened last August and has had anything but a smooth start. Tarim is no longer working for them and according to the Montgomery Advertiser, LEAD owes him $76,000. The Woodland Prep board has indicted they are now looking for someone else to manage their school.
A letter was sent on Feb. 18, 2020 from charter commission chair, Henry Nelson, to the attorney for Woodland Prep stating that there would be a hearing on March 24, 2020 to consider revoking their charter.
However, this was postponed to April 20, 2020. I can not find out who authorized this. It was NOT an action by the charter commission. I have twice asked by email both Nelson and Logan Searcy, state department staff person for the charter commission, who OK’ed this. Neither responded.
So here we are nearly two years later and this mess drags on. In addition to struggling to meet the hardships of the virus crisis we now face, in October Washington County schools will lose $700,000 in annual revenue when Power South closes a generating plant in Leroy.
And the chaos and confusion caused by an effort to open a charter school that has scant community support and is not needed still dangles over the head of this rural community.
(I have attended at least three meetings the charter commission has had with Woodland Prep. I NEVER recall a single parent from Washington County showing up to speak for Woodland Prep. Instead, it has either been Soner Tarim or attorney Nash Campbell pleading their case. Since both have a financial interest in Woodland Prep, do they really want a school–or a paycheck?)
Even without the virus crisis, it is high time for the state charter commission to do what is right and put an end to this travesty. And this crisis makes it even more so.